Examining the “who” in worship music

In his book Heretics, G.K. Chesterton states, “A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.”

I was struck by this quote, and it sent my mind to thinking, can the same be said about songs for Christian worship? In other words, does the following statement hold true?: A good worship song tells us the truth about God; but a bad worship song tells us the truth about its author. 

As I have written in previous posts, the words we use in Christian worship – including our songs – are formative. Words for worship must be chosen with the utmost care. Those who write lyrics for Christian worship must take seriously their role in directing and proclaiming praise of God.

Oftentimes, song lyrics can be (and should be) testimonial. Christian songwriters find inspiration through God’s work in their own lives, which prompts theological reflection in lyrical form. But perhaps Chesterton prompts us to ask the following question: on whom does the content of a worship song focus?

Personal-Story vs. Cosmic-Story

Lester Ruth suggests in his article, “A Rose by Any Other Name,”  that churches can often be divided into two different categories: personal-story churches and cosmic-story churches. He writes, “There are churches whose worship over time is most focused on the personal stories of the worshipers and how God interacts with their stories. In contrast there are churches whose worship over time unfolds a more cosmic remembrance of the grand sweep of God’’s saving activity. The goal here will be to show how worshipers have a share in salvation history.”

Applying Ruth’s two descriptions to Christian songwriting, the suggestion can be made that personal-story songs focus mainly on how God interacts with the author’s story. Cosmic-story songs show how the author has been swept up in God’s saving activity, having a share in salvation history.

A good example of a Personal-story song is “You Are So Good to Me” by Don Chaffer. The lyrics to the first verse and chorus of Chaffer’s song state:

You are so good to me
You heal my broken heart
You are my Father in heaven

You are beautiful my sweet, sweet song
You are beautiful my sweet, sweet song
You are beautiful my sweet, sweet song
And I will sing again

At first glance, it may appear that the focus of the above lyrics is on God. The song is directed to God and conveys attributes of God. The real focus, however, is on the author’s own experience of God. God is good to me. God heals my broken heart. I have found God beautiful and sweet. The scope of the lyrics fails to move outside of the author’s own personal experience with God.

In contrast, let us consider the first verse and chorus of Matt Maher’s “Christ is Risen”:

Let no one caught in sin remain
Inside the lie of inward shame
We fix our eyes upon the cross
And run to him who showed great love
And bled for us
Freely you bled, for us

Christ is risen from the dead
Trampling over death by death
Come awake, come awake!
Come and rise up from the grave!

Christ is risen from the dead
We are one with him again
Come awake, come awake!
Come and rise up from the grave!

It is immediately evident that Maher’s lyrics have a much broader scope than Chaffer’s. The focus of the song is on victory through the mighty acts of salvation through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. Maher gives a cosmic picture of worship as his song brings all worshipers to have share together in salvation history.*

Striking a balance?

To be completely honest, I really like both Chaffer’s song and Maher’s song. And I believe they both have their place in Christian worship. My goal in this post is not to set one type of song above the other. In fact, I believe Christian worship should be filled with a good balance of both personal-story songs and cosmic-story songs, as well as other liturgical acts. I believe we err when we lean too hard on one side and neglect the other. Sometimes I need to sing that God has been good to me, that he has answered my prayers, that he cares for me and has saved me. Yet, I find myself within a much more grand narrative of salvation, part of a cosmic story of redemption and victory. Setting a song like, “You are So Good to Me” along with a “Christ is Risen” helps move toward that balance.

Some songwriters are able to navigate both the personal-story and cosmic-story within a single song. Charles Wesley is a great example of this. For example, in the full, original 18-verses of his hymn “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” Charles begins with a cosmic doxological praise, turns to personal testimony, and ultimately gives way to proclamation of the Gospel message.

So, consider again if the following statement holds true: A good worship song tells us the truth about God; but a bad worship song tells us the truth about its author. 

My sense is that the statement is both correct and incorrect. Yes, every song of worship should tell us the truth about God. But often as the author encounters the cosmic story of salvation, his/her personal story gives voice to important prayer and praise. And perhaps we fail to see important aspects of God’s beauty and goodness by not paying attention to both.

*For the sake of brevity, I do not provide a wide variety of song examples. The two songs I consider here were not chosen through any formal methodology but were the first two songs that caught my eye when flipping through my church’s song database.

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About jonathanapowers

Jonathan serves with his wife, Faith, as the director of student ministries for World Gospel Mission at Asbury University, where he is also an adjunct professor of Worship Arts. He recently received his doctorate in worship studies from the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies in Orange Park, FL. Jonathan serves as the worship pastor for the Offerings Community of First United Methodist Church in Lexington, KY and is the co-author with Jason Jackson and Teddy Ray of Echo: A Catechism for Discipleship in the Ancient Tradition published by Seedbed.

3 responses to “Examining the “who” in worship music”

  1. willbedee says :

    Interesting thoughts Jon. Thanks for you insight. Having had the task of choosing songs for corporate worship before I have often had to think about similar things.

    This is a little off topic but I have often found there are also songs that sing about God and others that seem to sing directly to him. For awhile I was dead set on only singing songs that were written to him and not about him. I still prefer a good song written directly to him but I have grown an appreciation for the later.

    Thanks for writing about worship I enjoy the posts and thoughts.

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Music and the Missionary | jonathan powers - August 21, 2013
  2. Dissecting a Thousand Tongues | jonathan powers - September 17, 2013

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